Former presidential adviser Karl Rove may be a lightning rod for some conservative complaints these days, but his March 27 column in the Wall Street Journal sounded the right notes for everybody on the right side of the political spectrum.
Entitled “The New Republican Reformers,” Rove’s column highlighted the central truth that Republicans and conservatives usually do well when they are seen not just as obstructionists, but as practical problem-solvers.
I saw this firsthand last year when I ran in a special election for Congress — in which whatever else went wrong (I finished fourth in an unexpectedly foreshortened nine-way primary, eventually won by fellow conservative Bradley Byrne), voters showed a real hunger for creative conservatism. What I saw, and what Rove describes, is a lesson Republicans should have learned from the electoral and governing successes of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich: Reform, combined with compassion rightly understood, wins converts.
First, what Rove wrote: Republicans should be “applying conservative principles to 21st-century challenges, focused on middle-class concerns like lowering costs and improving access to college, modernizing health care and reforming the tax code. . . . Their ability to craft detailed proposals and marshal a consensus could well determine the GOP’s long-term viability.”
As examples, Rove praised the work of Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Mike Lee on an anti-poverty agenda, Senator Marco Rubio’s proposals for economic growth, the work of a host of Republican governors on both growth and poverty, and the intellectual toil of “a growing network of scribblers and thinkers.”
Rove is absolutely correct that the Republican party must counteract “the persistent belief of many voters that its candidates are out of touch and do not care about people like them.”
Two others Rove didn’t mention by name, but should have, are Indiana governor Mike Pence and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, both of whom receive far too little credit for spending their careers emphasizing the concerns of both low-income and blue-collar workers and of others broadly (if somewhat vaguely) described as “middle America.” Santorum, for instance, was the floor manager for the wildly successful 1996 reform of the country’s biggest cash welfare program, and has never lost his focus on the concerns of both Main Street and its employees.
And Alabama’s Senator Jeff Sessions, whose specific prescriptions may not be consonant with those of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has also correctly and consistently diagnosed the need for Republicans to attend to what are sometimes described as “working class” issues.
My own experience showed me that a very large subset of so-called ordinary voters have a real hunger for thoughtful new approaches rather than just boilerplate rhetoric. Just about every time I outlined new policy prescriptions at public forums and meet-and-greet events in people’s homes — or at least whenever I did so in concise terms, without wading too far into the weeds — I was met not just with applause but with excited follow-up questions and volunteer sign-ups.
On national issues, people responded well not just to attacks on the Independent Payment Advisory Board as a particular Achilles’ heel of Obamacare but also accompanying ideas for market-based reforms. They were even more excited about an idea to allow qualified veterans to use a Department of Veterans Affairs card for medical care anywhere, not just at VA facilities. On state issues, they loved it every time I endorsed the general thrust of a new hurricane-insurance pool developed by a local citizens’ group, and reacted well when I suggested a new legislative mechanism for financing a new bridge over the Mobile River, currently crossed by two traffic-clogged tunnels.
I certainly wasn’t the only one who earned plaudits for substantive policy remarks. For example, every time one of my competitors, state senator Chad Fincher, noted that he was the lead author of a sweeping, recently enacted school-choice law, the response was tremendously warm.
Americans are tired of negativity. They deeply want solutions. They don’t want big government, but they do want a limited government to innovate. It has long been thus.
As Senator Lee noted in a speech last fall to the Heritage Foundation:
Conservatives in the late 1970s did not start a “civil war.” They started a (mostly) civil debate. Because of that confident and deeply conservative choice — to argue rather than quarrel, to persuade rather than simply purge — the vanguards of the [liberal] establishment never knew what hit them. The bottom line was that in 1976, the conservative movement found a leader [Reagan] for the ages, yet it still failed. By 1980, the movement had forged an agenda for its time, and only then did it succeed.
Likewise, although the vast majority of Americans probably could not have identified any specific proposal from Newt Gingrich’s (and Dick Armey’s) 1994 Contract with America, a significant plurality knew that Republicans were indeed proposing specifics with the look and feel of real reform. The Contract wasn’t a sufficient explanation for Republicans’ winning their first House majority in 40 years, but it certainly was necessary.
As conservatives push new ideas, they also must listen and empathize. As noted in one of the Leadership Institute’s “Laws of the Public Policy Process,” politics “is of the heart as well as of the mind. Many people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Rove is right, and Ryan is right: Policy innovations aimed at both hearts and minds are essential for the Right’s political success.
Don’t just oppose; propose. And win.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.